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Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Series, soaps, and epics

Did you ever start loving a book or TV series and then disconnect from it? Maybe it went on too long, didn't seem to know how to end, or the plot just became too weird and fragmented, or the characters started acting strange?

My first love was a series. Asimov's Foundation. That's when it was only three books (he added a couple twenty years later - they were okay, but a first love is a first love). Next came Clarke's Rama series, then Herbert's seven Dune books.

Let's face it, if you love a book series, or a TV series, it is a little like being that series' lover: you can remain faithful to it through thick and thin, or if it annoys you or you lose interest, well, you can dump it and start seeing or reading something else. It's like dating. So, when does dating turn more serious and develop into a relationship? Is love-at-first-page sustainable?

I tend to be loyal. I watched the last seasons of Battlestar Galactica and Farscape, wondering what had gone wrong in the writers' heads, what had happened to those beautiful series. Some series know how to end. Fringe was one that for me was somehow made better by the Hollywood writers strike, and it stopped with dignity at Season Five and a decent closure (I wanted to move to the alternate universe, by the way).

My longest love affair with a book series has to be Dune, since some time after Frank Herbert's death, his son Brian, together with Kevin Anderson, produced several trilogy prequels, some of them brilliant. But after the nth book (yep, I actually lost count) I started to feel they didn't know how to end it, and I never finished the story, I just began not to care, like a marriage bled dry. Sad. Writing about it now, I even wonder if I should see the series one last time, check out that final book, if only for proper closure.

Then there are series I think I should stop seeing but can't. Game of Thrones, for example. I fell in love with Season One, got through Season Two, then swore I'd stop after Season Three, by which time he'd killed off so many main characters there was no one left I really cared about. But now that Season Four is out, I find myself glancing at the ads, pretending not to, like an ex I know I should stay away from, who still turns my head...

So, why does it go wrong? As with love, when I was a kid it was easier. I'd watch Star Trek religiously, and when a new Star Wars film came out there was no question, I'd go and see it. My youngest memories are of the old series of Flash Gordon, which I'd go and see every Saturday morning with my brother, spending my week's pocket money in one go. But even then I realised that the plot was being stretched to make me go back each week. It was never going to end. I loved watching Flash, so it didn't matter. But as an adult, being manipulated gets a bit irksome, no matter how pretty and seductive the series is.

An epic is supposed to be a story, or collection of intersecting stories that has a conclusion that binds them together, and a satisfying finale. Like Lord of the Rings, for example. It is self-contained. Frodo finds the ring, and has to take it to Mordor to destroy it. A lot of things happen on the way to try and stop him, but he does it, at great personal cost. The kingdom is saved. The end. [Sorry for the spoiler; please tell me you've read/seen it!]

And then there's the film version of the Hobbit. WTF? It's one small book, not a rambling trilogy of films. What were they thinking? They were thinking cash, of course.

Most (okay, all) TV series are there to make money, as in soaps, so-called because of the soap commercials that used to happen in the middle of each episode. They're designed to keep you engaged by you getting to know the characters better than your own friends, by making you care. They form relationships with you.

But that relationship is changing.

Nowadays, series are more brash, with more sex and violence, and the plots run fast and wild, going for the shock and titillation value, driven by relentless tension. Sometimes it works. Talking non-scifi for a moment, the series Homeland had a brilliant first season, an okay second, a mediocre third, and a gripping return-to-form fourth season. Like Twenty-Four Hours it excels at tension and plot twists, it keeps you guessing and dying to know what happens next, the TV equivalent of a good page-turner. But is that story? Is good sex the same as love?

Back to books, and particularly ebooks. There are many science fiction series out there by authors I'd never heard of, that are topping the charts with very long series, e.g. 'episodes' that run into double figures. It used to be that a trilogy was as far as you would go. Well, maybe five books, the last one of which would be a prequel. But now... It seems more like an addiction than love ('Is there a difference?' I hear some say).

Maybe it's just me. I still like stories; you know, a beginning and an end, with a middle that isn't eternal. So, for my own Eden Paradox series, it was meant to be a trilogy. However, an idea took mid-way through book three over that meant it ran to a fourth book, but that's definitely the end (I even called it 'Eden's Endgame' just to make sure), with no prequels planned. I recall one reviewer who quit after book 3, saying that it was good but that was enough. I felt guilty, because at the time I wasn't sure how to end the final volume, and I didn't want it to spill over into a fifth book, didn't want to lose my way in the story, or for it to become a soap...

It wasn't easy to end it. I'd carried those characters in my head for almost a decade. I still miss them sometimes. But I'm happy with the ending, and so too are my readers (except of course that the series has ended).

TV is different, of course, it's ruled by the dollar, so you don't find many TV show producers bold (insane?) enough to simply take a single epic story and screen it. Instead, they'll try to keep it running, do anything to get to Season Two (most don't make it that far), lose track in Season Three, and then it's anyone's guess, because when it was started nobody was thinking that far ahead. So here's my advice - don't start with just an idea, a new high-octane sexy TV series concept; why not find a really good story? There's plenty out there. But hey, what do I know?

So for now, I'm back to reading non-series SF, because one of the advantages of reading is that you can find a good writer (e.g. Banks, Asher, Hamilton, Reynolds, McDevitt, etc.) and then stick with them and all their different books and series, and it feels like a marriage that's going somewhere. I'm also watching Defiance (Season Two), and yes, I'll probably watch Game of Thrones Season 4, because it still turns my head, maybe for all the wrong reasons. But I'll fondly remember Star Trek Deep Space Nine's last three seasons, one long magnificent, epic story, and Lord of the Rings, which as far as I'm concerned is the best story ever told.



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